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Alumni recognized for pro bono work

Abel Garza, associate at Pepper Hamilton

True to Villanova Law’s values, our students and alumni utilize their skills to advance the greater good. Recent graduates Mark Wilhelm ’15 and Abel Garza ’16 are making pro bono work a priority as they launch their respective careers in Big Law.

Both associates at Pepper Hamilton LLP, Wilhelm and Garza are fighting for the rights of tenants who lack attorney representation through pro bono work with Philadelphia VIP, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services for low-income residents and families facing legal problems that threaten their basic human needs—shelter, employment, financial stability, education and health.

Wilhelm and Garza jumped into landlord-tenant work when they learned that the City of Philadelphia was overwhelmed with underrepresented tenants. A recent study indicates that one in seven Philadelphia renters faced an eviction case in 2015, and over 90% of tenants confront these cases without an attorney.

Wilhelm works in Pepper Hamilton's Corporate and Securities Practice Group, specializing in mergers and acquisitions and securities offerings and compliance. "In corporate law, attorneys primarily spend their time in the office. But growing up, I always thought of attorneys as being 'in the courtroom.' Volunteering with VIP helps me fulfill that vision."   

Mark Wilhelm, associate at Pepper Hamilton

The firm has its own pro bono Tenant Representation Practice Group, which encourages attorneys to take on these cases. It is co-chaired by Garza, who works in Pepper Hamilton's Health Sciences Department and represents pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers in products liability, consumer fraud litigation and government investigations.  

"With a large support network of colleagues, Pepper Hamilton's Tenant Representation Practice Group creates a real sense of community for attorneys working on cases solo," Abel notes. "Philly VIP does that too."

For clients, going at it alone in court and navigating the system without counsel is extraordinarily difficult. “Not only do many tenants not know their rights, they must go up against experienced attorneys who know the law,” Garza explains. “We help level the playing field.”

Case in point: One of his VIP clients was sued for $4,000 in unpaid rent, even though the client had proof of payment. Thanks to Garza, the landlord actually had to pay a money judgment to the client, who was able to stay in his unit rent-free. “My client was ecstatic,” Garza recalls.

For attorneys taking their first Landlord-Tenant case, Wilhelm suggests going to court to observe, even for an hour. “Just watch what happens,” he says. “You will pick up 80% of what you need to know.” Garza adds, “You can be the reason someone gets to keep her or his home. Our work affects clients on a personal level more than you can ever imagine. That feeling is what keeps me going.”